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Time Budgets and Diaries

Time budget surveys have been done all over the world to track how ordinary human beings spend most of their days (Szalai 1972). The idea is to learn about the sequence, duration, and frequency of behaviors and about the contexts in which behaviors take place. Some researchers ask respondents to keep diaries; others conduct ‘‘yesterday interviews,” in which respondents are asked to go over the last 24 hours and talk about everything they did. Some researchers combine these methods, collecting diaries from respondents and then following up with a personal interview.

Perhaps the earliest time budget in anthropology was done by Audrey Richards between 1930 and 1934 during 2.5 years of fieldwork among the Bemba of Zambia (it was Northern Rhodesia back then). Richards went across the country, spending from 3 to 6 weeks in a series of villages. She pitched her tent in the middle of each village so she could watch people’s activities and in two of those villages, Kasaka and Kapamba, she kept daily calendars of all the adults, both men and women (Richards 1939:10-11). Richards asked several informants to estimate how long they took to accomplish various tasks—planting a garden, chasing locusts, cutting trees. Then she averaged what people told her and got a rough estimate for each task. Then she applied those figures to her observations of people in the two villages where she kept records of the daily activities (Richards 939:395 and appendix E).

In 1992, Elizabeth Harrison recruited 16 farmers in two villages of Luapula Province of Zambia to keep records for 4 months of their daily activities. The diaries reveal that the technology for producing cassava meal hadn’t changed since Richards’s day (E. Harrison

  • 2000:59). They also showed how long seemingly ordinary things can take. Here is Abraham Kasongo, one of Harrison’s informants, describing his trip to Kalaba, the capital of the province, to get millet so his mother could brew beer. Kalaba is 8 kilometers away and Kasongo is going by bicycle:
  • 22nd July 1992

Morning I go watering the seeds after watering I came back and wash my body and go to my father’s house to get the biscley and start the journey to Kalaba to get the millet.

I found the one who has been given the money is not around I start waiting for him around 14 hrs he came and give me millet I go where the people in the village where drinking the coll me and I join them around 15 hrs I start caming back I found my wife is not around I go to my father’s house and put millet then I show my father the fish for sale and the piace is K200.00 he take the fish and I start caming back straight to the house. I found my wife priparing fire and start cooking Nshima [the staple food, made from cassava. HRB] with dry vegetables we eat and I go to see Eliza we tolked antill I cam back to slip becouse I was tired I just go straight to slip. (E. Harrison 2000:62)

Discursive diaries, in other words, are like any other qualitative data: They make the process clear and bring out subtleties in behavioral complexes that time budgets can obscure. And, just as with any other survey method, getting both the qualitative and quantitative is better than one kind of data alone.

Susan Shaw’s study of family activities in Canada is typical of the use of time budgets in modern societies (1992). Shaw studied 46 middle- and working-class couples who had children living at home. All the fathers were employed full time and among the mothers, 12 were employed full time, 9 were employed part time, and 25 were full-time homemakers. Both parents kept time diaries for 1 day during the week and for 1 day on a weekend. Then, Shaw interviewed the parents separately, for 1 to 2 hours in their homes. For each activity that they had mentioned, parents were asked if they considered the activity to be work or leisure, and why.

Shaw calculated the amount of time that each parent reported spending with their children—playing with them, reading to them, and so on. The rather dramatic results are in table 9.1. For these Canadian families, at least, the more that women work outside the home, the more time fathers spend with their children.

Table 9.1 Average Amount of Time Fathers and Mothers Report Spending with Children, by the Mother's Employment Status

Time with children per day (in minutes)

Mother's employment status




Employed full-time




Employed part-time




Full-time homemaker






SOURCE: ''Dereifying Family Leisure: An Examination of Women's and Men's Everyday Experiences and Perceptions of Family Time'' by S. Shaw, 1992, Leisure Sciences, p. 279. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis.

Diaries and time-budget interviews, particularly with the aid of checklists, appear to be more accurate than 24-hour recall of activities. But no matter what you call them, time budgets and diaries are still methods for collecting self-reports of behavior. They maybe less inaccurate than simply asking people to tell you what they did over the past day or week, but they are not perfect. A lot of work remains to be done on testing the accuracy of activity diaries against data from direct observation. In chapter 14, we’ll look at methods for direct observation and measurement of behavior (Further Reading: time budgets and time diaries).

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